View from the Foothills of France

Some personal views on living, working,
bringing up family and making the dream happen in the most beautiful region of France. View from the Foothills of France also includes some personal and professional thoughts and tips on finding and buying the perfect property in the Ariège and Haute Garonne regions.

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Five Questions with a Property Finder

Happy New Year, Bonne Année and Bonne Santé

This is going to be a very busy year if the first few days of 2019 are any indication; I currently have so many enquiries that it feels as if half of the UK population has decided to move to France. I think we can probably all guess why but my New Year’s resolution (or one of them) is to mention that as little as possible…

So, in the light of current enquiries, I thought I would post this interview I did for a French Property magazine as it answers many of the questions I am being asked right now and hopefully explains the service I offer to help you find your dream home out here in the foothills of France. Of course you are welcome to contact me with your own questions or to discuss your own property search:

Where in South-West France are you based?

I am based on the border of the Haute Garonne and the Ariège, located an hour south west of Toulouse in the Ariège national park and the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains; it is one of the most unspoiled and authentic regions of France with stunning scenery and pretty villages set against the stunning backdrop of snowy peaks.

What sort of people hire a property finder?

I work with a wide and varied clientele from all over the world, each with their own specific criteria and requirements. Nationalities of my clients include British, Australians, South Africans, Americans, Danish, Canadian and Russian. Every client’s brief is different; some are looking for holiday homes, others are relocating with young families and hence require information on schools and local facilities while others are retiring and need advice on local communities and investing their nest egg wisely. I also have a fair number of clients looking for ski properties to make the most of the fantastic and very good value ski resorts in the Pyrénées. Many of my clients have already spent a great deal of time looking, unsuccessfully, for their dream home, which is why they come to me and others are only too aware that they cannot afford the time and costs involved in a really thorough property search at a distance and hence hire me to do all the time-consuming and costly research for them. All of my clients want to have a professional on their side (just as the seller does) to ensure that they find the very best property for them at the very best price. Every single one of my clients, once installed in their new home in France, has told me that I saved them a huge amount of money and effort and that they would never have found exactly what they were looking for without me which is always really nice to hear after a long and detailed search.

What attracts people to your area?

Where do I start? It has become a cliché to say that an area offers something for everyone but I think it is true to say that it would be hard to find another region that ticks so many boxes for so many people. For nature lovers, this area is just teeming with unspoiled natural environment and a huge variety of fauna and flora while for sporting types, this same environment provides the perfect location for walkers, cyclists, canoeists, horse riders plus, in winter, there are numerous excellent ski resorts for all levels, most of which are an easy drive away from just about anywhere within my area. Most of my clients are, of course, francophiles and there is ample opportunity to enjoy the wonderful food and wine of the region, numerous local markets such as that in St Girons which attracts people from miles around and the usual wide selection of restaurants serving local produce. In addition, we have, within an hour, the region’s capital, Toulouse which is a thriving and fashionable metropolis with all the culture, arts and shopping that anyone could want. An added bonus is that this region is perfectly located to make the most of Spain on the doorstep, an easy day trip away and to enjoy the best of both the Atlantic and Mediterranean beaches which are both around two hour’s drive.

What sort of budgets do your clients have?

There is a common belief that property finders are only for those with very large budgets but that is not the case in reality. I have worked with clients with budgets from €150,000 – €2m and I will take on any search as long as my clients have realistic expectations as to what their budget will buy.

What sort of properties are available in your area?

This is another advantage of the region; we have such a wide selection of properties here ranging from small village houses, to sprawling farmhouses and from renovation projects to ski apartments or mountain barns to Manoirs and Châteaux. However, what I have discovered from the last 15 years of living and working in this region is that, very often, we do not buy the property we think we are looking for when we begin our property search. House hunting is, in reality, not something you can do on paper or on the internet because, although in theory, we might think we know what we are looking for, in reality a house can tick every box on that check list and still not be ‘the one’ while another property may not meet any of the requirements and yet could well end up as the house you decide to call home. The process needs to evolve which is where I come in, to tease out the actual requirements that fit both a client’s wish list and their actual lifestyle and to point out the cons as well as the pros of each property (an agent is very good at doing the latter but will very rarely do the former!) Finding the right house in France is about so much more than the actual bricks and mortar and a big part of my job is not only finding the right property for my clients but also the right location whether that be close to the best schools, best restaurants, best transport networks, best ski resorts, best doctors and all and any of those aspects of daily life that you can only discover either by living here or by working with someone who lives here.



Dreaming of a French Christmas

Christmas weather in the Pyrenees

In the past I have spent Christmas in various countries and the way different cultures celebrate at this time of year seems to be very indicative of their priorities. So when we moved to France, I was fascinated to see what the focus of the celebration would be here. Of course, it should have been obvious – the focus is on food and eating but also on spending time en famille.

Our little part of France has not yet completely sold out to the commercial, shopping fest that has become the norm in many countries, maybe because people just do not have the money (and do not spend money they don’t have.) Presents are, of course, part of the celebrations but almost as a secondary element to the culinary highlight of the Christmas meal which takes place on Christmas Eve. Moreover, Christmas decorations generally don’t go up until two weeks before the day and, here in the Ariège, the local communes organize hundreds of Christmas trees to be placed at intervals along the streets, often decorated by the local school children.

Even better, while Christmas here is nearly always mild and sunny (we mostly have our apéro on the terrace in the sun) we can nevertheless guarantee a white Christmas – at least within a short drive into the mountains. So either Christmas Eve or Boxing Day is usually spent enjoying a walk on our favourite snowy plateau with some sledging and some mulled wine and mince pies from the picnic basket (mince pies is a British tradition that we cling to but one that our French neighbours just don’t get!)

Somehow the French manage to take the best bits of Christmas, discard the stress and overspending and just focus on eating, drinking and enjoying time en famille. As so often is the case, it leaves us realizing that our French friends and neighbours here have their priorities right.

Wishing you a very happy Christmas à la français.


Quality of life and cost of living in France

I have written about this before but we currently have lots of demonstrations happening all over France in protest against the rise in fuel taxes and the cost of living which has made me consider whether life really has got more expensive in the last 15 years that we have been here. The French definitely work to live, not the other way around and they are worried that this balance is tipping in the wrong direction right now. One demonstrator interviewed on the French news complained that he fears he won’t be able to afford his usual skiing trip this winter; I’m not sure that would elicit much sympathy in many other countries in the world!

According to a survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the French spend more time eating, sleeping and shopping than any other country. Apparently, the French sleep an average of 8.5 hours. It makes France the longest sleepers out of all 34 of the OECD’s members. Does this mean that the French have less to fit into their days or are they just more relaxed about what does and doesn’t get done? Do they have less to worry about – or maybe they expect the state to do their worrying for them – and thus sleep easy at night!

The French also spend the most time eating and drinking at more than two hours per day on average which is nearly twice as long as the Americans and Canadians. Looking at obesity rates though, clearly time spent consuming doesn’t necessarily mean more consumed. Of course, it is this emphasis on long, lazy lunches that brought many of us here in the first place but it is very noticeable that the French do not eat or drink excessively – a meal is probably less dense than in the UK but each element makes up a separate course to be lingered over, enjoyed and never rushed. Nor do the French tend to snack in my experience. So, more food and wine isn’t crossing the lips of the French – it just feels as if it is.

It turns out that the French are big shoppers too – or perhaps just slow shoppers.  According to the report, the French spend 32 minutes each day shopping. However, I would guess that we are primarily talking about shopping for food here. Most of the French people I know shop for fresh ingredients every day and have no problem taking their time about it – this all part of that pleasure of appreciating their food.

Unsurprisingly therefore, the report also shows that French people have the second-highest life expectancy in the OECD, presumably thanks to the high amount of time spent enjoying themselves. Add that to the 28% of GDP that the French state spends on healthcare and social welfare, the highest spending of any OECD country and it all starts to make perfect sense.

It seems to me that, although the French might feel that they are hard done by, the rest of us can only look on enviously at their work/life balance – or make that move to France and hope that some of the magic dust rubs off; that’s if we can get through the demonstrations of course.

Buying a house privately in France

Buying a house privately and avoiding steep estate agent’s fees of 5-10% might seem like a good idea and and an appealing route to take but, if you are house hunting in France, it pays to understand the French property market first and to know the region. In France, 30% of people buy property privately (know as entre particuliers). The figure is even higher when you take just French buyers and sellers into account. There are, however, various pitfalls to be aware of if you are thinking of taking this route.

One of the problems with private sales can be that often the owner has decided to sell privately because they think their house is worth more than the local agents have estimated. They might be right but it is unlikely; most sellers will ask at least three agents to value their property before putting it on the market and these agents will usually know their area and the market very well and have a very good idea of the value of the house. Of course they might not take into account the very expensive finishes and special details of which the seller is hugely proud but it is a competitive market and they will have an idea of how much anyone will pay for a certain type of property in a particular area. Hence, with a private sale, you can in fact end up paying more than a house is actually worth.

In addition, the seller may well advertise the house privately at a higher price than it is being marketed with an agent; something that happens surprisingly frequently and often catches out foreign buyers. Even more importantly, however, there are sometimes other reasons why an owner doesn’t want to sell through an agent. Usually this is because there are either problems with the property or the location, something that an agent will be obliged to point out to the buyer but will not necessarily be discovered by a private buyer or picked up by the Notaire.

Don’t let this put you off private sales, most are fine but it is important to know the area and the prices or at least have a professional by your side who can advise you. If you need help with your property search, please get in touch: